Southern courtroom dramas are a staple of cinema, so much so that I promise reading “Southern Attorney Accent” brings up a very specific accent in your mind. The lawyers in these fiction and non-fiction stories are white, overwhelmingly white lawyers finding justice in cases that show their unjust teeth from the beginning. But in The Burial, the Southern courtroom drama is turned, exploring the reality that lies in the ways contracts are written based on who is signing on the dotted line.
Directed by Maggie Betts with a story by Doug Wright and screenplay by Wright and Betts, The Burial is based on The New Yorker article by Jonathan Harr and stars Tommy Lee Jones, Jamie Foxx, Jurnee Smollett, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed, Bill Camp, and Alan Ruck. Inspired by the true events of Harr’s article, the film handles the aftermath of a handshake deal gone wrong and an attempt to get justice.
The Burial gets its name from the case itself, between a small-town funeral homeowner Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), versus the Loewen Group, a Canadian-based deathcare company. In order to win, Jerry enlists charismatic attorney Willie E. Gary (Jamie Foxx) to save his family business. On the other side? Attorney Mame Downes, who represents the company that is pushing to keep Jerry without a house and deep in bankruptcy. With emotions high and his family legacy on the line, Jerry and Willie have to work together and wind up uncovering the deep corruption and racial injustices that have exploited the Black community in Mississippi along with Jerry.
Both Willie and Jerry, Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones respectively, give fantastic performances. Where Foxx is an eccentric powerhouse who finds his heart, Jones is a desperate man looking to repair his. Their chemistry is one that feels like old friends as much as skeptical client and attorney, and their relationship is what grounds the film, pulled to each other through histories and communities they didn’t see at first.
For his part, Foxx is brilliant as he lambasts the company on the witness stand. Emotional and brash, but driven by his care for his client, Willie is a layered character whose eccentricity has reasons and softens as the film continues. At the same time, mild-mannered Jerry is a man of principle, wearing his mistakes on his sleeve but a unique kind of sensitive at the same time.
The Burial is not just a courtroom drama but rather a film with which audiences look at Mississippi and the South at large. Where some write off the South, this film sees, captures, and renders it through its characters. Betts’s ability to adapt the real-life court case by capturing the realities bubbling under the surface of a contract dispute, she and Wright are able to show the audience the layers to contracts, the systems they feed on, and ultimately, the judiciary prejudices can thrive.
By adding in that layer, Betts and Wright settle The Burial squarely in the community, system, and state in which it takes place, with all of its beauty and all of its oppressive elements as well—particularly the insidious natures of multilevel marketing schemes on poor communities, but in that look at class in Southern Mississippi, you have to discuss race.
The Burial isn’t revolutionary, but it captures the core of Southern courtroom drama films and engages with race and class directly, making those tropes better for it. By capturing the tethers of empathy from every character to the case and the attorneys involved, the film is able to be more than it is on paper, propelled by Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones’s exceptional performances.
The Burial isn’t revolutionary, but it captures the elements of Souther courtroom drama films and engages with elements of race and class directly, making those tropes better for it. By capturing the tethers of empathy from every character to the case and the attorneys involved, the film is able to be more than it is on paper, propelled by Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones’s exceptional performances.